Talking with Authors of New Abortion Road-Trip Comedy Novel
It was 2011, and writer Jenni Hendriks was in her car, creeping through Los Angeles traffic, when a news story on NPR enraged her. South Dakota was imposing a 72-hour waiting period for any residents seeking an abortion — and that was in a state, mind you, where there was only one clinic providing the service in the first place.
“I just thought, these women are already driving hundreds of miles to get access to this! I was super pissed off,” said Hendriks. She called her writing partner Ted Caplan and blurted, “I know what we’re writing next! It’s a road trip — a road trip with your best friend.” And so they did. This month, HarperTeen publishes their book Unpregnant, the fresh, funny adventure tale of Missouri high school valedictorian Veronica, who is Ivy League bound when she finds herself disastrously pregnant. Horrified that her life (and perfect image) will be derailed, she opts to secretly travel 994 miles to the closest place she can get a legal abortion without parental consent: at a clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico. To do so, she needs the help of Bailey, the school’s turquoise-haired, combat-boot-clad freak — who happens to be Veronica’s ex-best friend. Along their way, odd couple Veronica and Bailey pinball hilariously from pawn shops to strip dives, facing down cows, ferrets, and Planned Parenthood protesters.
“We discovered there was an abortion desert in the middle of the country that went for 1,000 miles in any direction,” Caplan said, “and we thought, okay, how do we highlight the absurdity of this demand on these girls? We wanted to do something in that Thelma & Louise world, showing how big the world is when you’re young and getting out there and seeing it for the first time.”
In fact, Caplan and Hendriks, who live in Los Angeles, set out on that very road trip together before writing the book — and, if their recent article in Parade magazine is to be believed, engaged in stereo battles the entire way, him queuing up “depressing songs sung by whiny white guys” and her opting for power ballads from Wicked and Hamilton.
Where they really traipsed into uncharted territory, though, was in writing and pitching this provocative story. “That’s a risky proposition,” Caplan said when Hendriks first pitched her idea. “We’ve been writing comedies. How are we going to pull off an abortion … road-trip … comedy?”
The answer: Carefully. While Unpregnant is funny from start to finish, it’s never flippant about the subject matter. “The idea,” Caplan said, “was to present a story that could reduce shame for young women whether they’d had an abortion, knew someone who’d had an abortion, or thought about having an abortion.”
Hendriks was raised in a conservative religious family and attended 16 years of Catholic school — including college. “I am very familiar with the anti-choice message that’s presented in that environment,” she says.
For pro-choice folks like these authors, the political climate has gotten a lot more, er, rage-inducing since they first conceived of this story eight years ago. Just this year, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee passed extremely restrictive abortion laws, and last month Planned Parenthood had to withdraw from Title X — losing $60 million in annual funding — after the Trump administration barred participating clinics from providing abortions or referring patients for abortions.
On a professional level, this news makes Unpregnant more marketable, of course. On a personal level, it makes the authors crazy. “We’re glad the book feels relevant, and we’re happy to be a part of the conversation, but …,” Caplan says, trailing off in that I-don’t-recognize-my-country way that’s a familiar part of liberal conversations these days.
HBO Max begins shooting the Unpregnant movie soon, with Caplan and Hendriks’s script. It’s expected to be released in fall of 2020.